I’m a firm believer in writers’ workshops, especially for beginning authors. As long as it’s a good workshop committed to giving hard feedback, there’s no better way to hear what real readers really think of your work.
Beta readers are like workshop readers for your novel. They’re just regular people or fellow writers that read the whole thing before it’s published and give hard, honest feedback so that you can improve the manuscript prior to querying agents or self-publishing.
I spent most of my professional career as a developmental editor. My job was to give authors feedback and to help them make the content of their books the best that it could be. I’ve stepped out of that role to launch the School of Kingdom Writers, so I no longer have a horse in this race to bias my opinion.
So what’s the difference between the two? Do you need both? Are beta readers a substitute for a developmental editor?
Beta readers are really good at finding problems. They’ll find the holes in your plot, they’ll tell you which characters they didn’t believe or didn’t like, and they’ll give you a good sense of the overall quality of the book.
However, beta readers aren’t very good at proposing solutions. The biggest problem with beta readers is that they typically don’t know that they’re not good at proposing solutions.
Beta readers are good at finding problems, but usually not at proposing good solutions.
Development editors, on the other hand, have talent, experience, and expertise at not only identifying problems but in helping the author to find solutions. Great developmental editors are really good teachers. After you finish your developmental edit, your book should be way better but you should also be armed with new skills, tools, and techniques that you can apply to your next projects as well.
Developmental editors provide feedback AND advice. They’re really good teachers.
If you’re only going to do one or the other, a developmental editor will do far more good for your book than beta readers. However, good news: you can do both!
Beta readers should have the first look at your book, when you feel like it’s “done.” You should tell them up front, “I don’t want your advice, I just want feedback. Just tell me what you did and didn’t like, then I’ll figure out how to fix it.”
Even after you say that, they’re still going to try to give you advice. Their criticism will probably have a lot of common threads, but their advice will be all over the map. If you had asked them to taste a cake that you baked, they would all agree that it’s too dry, but one will tell you it needs more eggs, the other that you’re baking it too hot, the next that you probably beat the batter too long. We all know what we like to “taste” in books, but that doesn’t mean we know how to fix it.
So be prepared to sift through the advice to identify the feedback. If you see solutions, you can apply them. If not, you can take that feedback to your developmental editor and say, “Most of my readers felt like X, how do I fix it?” A good developmental editor will teach you to see it, fix it, and provide a bunch of other stuff you can fix up too. Even that non-specific “it just didn’t feel right” feedback you got—your developmental editor will be able to identify the problem and provide solutions.
Beta readers answer the question, “If I published today, what would my Amazon reviews look like?”
Developmental editors answer the question, “What steps should I take to comprehensively improve this manuscript?”
Beta readers can give feedback, but developmental editors give feedback and advice.
Beta readers can be helpful, but they are an optional step in the process, and not a substitute for a good developmental editor.
Beta readers are optional. But NO BOOK should be published without the assistance of a professional developmental editor.
Are beta readers helpful? Yes!
Your developmental editor will help you take a big step forward from the manuscript you present to them. The better of a manuscript you can bring in, the farther forward you’ll end up. If your beta readers help you to improve the manuscript even a little, you’ll get better results.
However, depending on your beta readers, the incremental improvements you make through that process may not be worth the weeks or months it slows down the process, or the headaches of finding, cajoling, and reminding your buddies to help you out. You may want to save those favors and social capital for your book launch.
If you’re looking for a great writers’ community, check out the Kingdom Writers Guild on Facebook. You’ll find like-minded writers who are working hard to write great books and develop an audience. You might even find a worthwhile beta reader in the bunch! 😊
Confused by the publishing industry? Don’t be!
I wrote this publishing guide for the School of Kingdom Writers, and you can get it for free.
Click here to grab your copy.
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